The Slatest

Mike Pence Declares Public Health Emergency Over HIV “Epidemic” in Indiana

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has declared a public health emergency in a rural county in his state following an “epidemic” of HIV among intravenous drug users. The New York Times reports that Scott County, which sees approximately five new HIV infections in an ordinary year, has recorded 80 cases as part of a recent outbreak, an explosion that public health officials believe is due to the sharing of infected needles. From the Times:

Gov. Mike Pence said the infections constituted an epidemic, and he pledged state resources to help local health officials contain the virus. In his emergency declaration, which lasts 30 days, Gov. Pence authorized a short-term, state-supervised needle exchange program that would provide drug users with access to safe needles.*

“This is all hands on deck,” said Gov. Pence, who met this week with officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This is a very serious situation.”

The creation of a needle exchange signals the level of urgency in the state’s response, since such programs are explicitly forbidden under Indiana law and Pence, a Republican, has vowed to veto any attempt to reverse that ban. “I do not enter into this lightly,” he said, according to the Indianapolis Star. “In response to a public health emergency, I’m prepared to make an exception to my long-standing opposition to needle exchange programs.”

Using a multifaceted approach including a mobile enrollment facility for Healthy Indiana, the state’s Medicaid program, and a command center to coordinate efforts to get drug users tested for HIV and into drug treatment programs, Gov. Pence promised that the state would both contain the outbreak and aid those already affected by the disease and by drug addiction. “I have deep compassion for people who have been trapped by this addiction,” he said, “and we want to make sure people know they’re not alone.”

*Correction: This post originally misquoted the New York Times as talking about “local help officials.”